Monday, April 30, 2007

Healthy Options

My nearest post box is at the top of the estate, a distance of nearly 2 miles, all uphill.

I'd been working on the end of month accounts all morning, pausing now and then to gaze wistfully outside at the glorious sunshine. Once I'd finished and was left with a pile of very important paperwork to put in the post I made the decision to cycle to the post box, rather than drive.

I can see now why most of the time I take the car. It is so quick and easy. First I had to find something to carry my post in, on the bike, and then I had to hunt for a water bottle. Then I discovered the front tyre of the bike was looking a little soft and turned the place upside down searching for a pump.

I did, however, spot Lovely Warden and Gardener working by the moat. I wheeled the bike round to them. "I don't suppose, by any chance, you have a bicycle pump to hand?"

Lovely Warden never ceases to amaze me. He waded out of the moat, rummaged in his bag and produced a bicycle pump. Outstanding. Tyre inflated, I was good to go. "Right," I announced. "I am off to the post box."
"The one in town?"
"Um, no. Just at the top of the estate."
I went on to explain how I was not only reducing my carbon footprint, but was determined to be less fat and more fit by the end of the year. "So, if you see me eating something lardy, feel free to slap it away and shout 'no!'"
"So, we have permission to strike you, then?"
"Only if it's something unhealthy," I specified, somewhat concerned at this eager response.

"Have you got a cycle helmet?" asked Gardener.

"No, but I do have big hair," I replied. "I'm sure it must have some protective qualities."

I set off. The slope is gradual, but relentless. My goal is to get a bit further each time I do this before having to get off and walk for a bit. I was about halfway up when I heard a van approaching. It was Lovely Warden and Gardener off to the top to get more equipment from the forestry yard.

"How's it going?"

"It's really hard," I puffed and panted. "If I have a heart attack, will you pick me up on the way back down?"

They assured me they would and went on their way. I went on my way, only rather more slowly. There comes a point when you're cycling uphill, really slowly, in the lowest gear possible, when elderly people overtake you on foot and it gets a bit embarrassing. I paused again in the shade, sitting on a fallen tree trunk and gratefully drinking the water I'd brought. The Gardener's van pulled up alongside me again.

"Almost there then!" he cried, cheerfully.
"Almost," I wheezed.

I waited for the van to depart before resuming my slow crawl to the top of the estate. I weaved my way between the sheep and lambs on the road. They had no need to fear my approach

At last I reached my destination. I stuffed my letters into the post box triumphantly. Yes!

The ride back down made it all worthwhile. The road spun out beneath me, the sheep were woolly white blurs, I rattled over the cattle grids and I remembered to stand up on the pedals as I did so.

By the time I'd put the bike back in the shed Lovely Warden and Gardener were back by the moat again, continuing their good work in fixing the leaking water supply. I wandered over to see how they were doing, my legs still somewhat achey and my face feeling like it must be as red as the post box.

"Did you win," they asked, "or are you still fighting?"

"Still fighting, a bit," I answered, truthfully. "Shall I get us all an ice cream?"
(In case you were wondering, I had a Calippo, which was the healthiest option available, so avoided having it smacked out of my hands with a muddy shovel).

Friday, April 27, 2007

Careful Now!

"We'll need an extension lead," mused my Boss, thoughtfully. We were stood around an unplugged freezer in one of the outbuildings we use for storage up at the Estate Office.

"Is there a socket anywhere?" asked McColleague.

"Yes, at the other end of the building. We could make a hole in the ceiling in the tea room stores, and thread a lead through the roof space."

Lovely Warden arrived with an extension lead.

"Up you go, Sam," said my Boss.

("Sam" is not Lovely Warden's name. My Boss calls all men "Sam" and all women "Gert". It saves him from having to remember too many names.)

I watched in trepidation as Lovely Warden stepped up onto a swivel chair, wedged in amongst the junk, balanced on a plank of wood on top of a step, and then progressed up a pile of rather flimsy-looking boxes, before wriggling through the small gap into the roof space.

Much tapping, and knocking ensued, as Lovely Warden and the Boss married up the end of the lead with a hole in the ceiling.

He emerged, backwards, some time later, lead in hand, covered in cobwebs and grime.

"Coming back out was the hardest part," he said. "I couldn't see my feet. It's hard enough when there's a ladder, but with just boxes and a swivel chair..."

McColleague and I nodded. We had seen just how tricky it was. I had only managed to capture one image without camera shake, due to laughing so much.

"Well, at least you're down safely! No more health and safety concerns for us."

"Here, Sam," said the Boss, fiddling with the plug he was attempting to reconnect to the lead hanging from the hole in the ceiling, "you'd better check this. I can't see a bloody thing."

I gave McColleague the look that means "get ready to dislodge him with a broom handle, should this go horribly wrong".

There was no big shock, no sparks, however, just a satisfying thrum of a functioning chest freezer. Hurrah. Now we can store more bread rolls than ever before! Worth every exciting moment, I'm sure you'll agree.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Change of Pace

Today I have been in the company of my 20 month old soon-to-be-godchild. All my dealings with staff and volunteers today were conducted with a littl'un balanced on one hip, or sat on my lap bashing away quite happily at the computer keyboard.
We went on an adventure through the orchards, across the meadows and down to the brook. We climbed up molehills and peered under bridges for trolls. We squeezed into Snow White's dwarf-sized cottage and spread out on the giant chess board.
We ate ice cream and strawberries and had chocolate smiles and sticky fingers. There was talk of poo and bogies.
It was so nice to spend the day with someone completely on my intellectual level for once.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Duck Attack!

I like ducks. They are nature's safety birds - rounded beaks, webbed feet. There is a reason why duck fighting never caught on.
They can still startle you in their quest for stray grains though.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Slippy Slidey Slope of Doom

That's what I call the long, muddy incline that features on one of the walks through the woods.

McColleague and I take the occasional bike ride together when the weather is warm. Usually we cycle to the local pub, have a couple of beers and some chips, and then ride home again, full of lard and lager.

Running out of steam halfway up the Slippy Slidey Slope of Doom, I dismounted and decided to push the bike the rest of the way. As I slid back down past McColleague, the bike on top of me, I realised it wasn't going to be that simple.

"Are you all right?" called McColleague.

"I'm ok! I'm all right!" I assured her as I continued my descent. "Just a bit muddy. Can you help get the bike off me?"

I may need to re-think the route for next time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


The Evidence:

Found outside the gatehouse, moments before letting in the visitors.
The Usual Suspects:

Age 17
Special moves: eating chicken, dribbling and staring.


Age 2

Special moves: using my leg as a scratching post, getting stuck up trees and sitting in people's trousers while they're on the toilet.


Age 2

Special moves: dangerous rooftop manoeuvres and killing small creatures with ruthless efficiency.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Time Off

I am taking a couple of days in lieu this week, seeing as though I worked a six day week, including two bank holidays, over Easter.

So far on my day off I have:

  • Organised volunteer cover for tomorrow.
  • Bought cake and biscuits for the volunteers.
  • Brought through their cups, milk, kettle etc.
  • Completed the end of week returns and faxed them to regional office.
  • Banked the takings.
  • Bought a new ink cartridge for the printer.
  • Got change for the tea room.
  • Sorted out the floats for tomorrow.
  • Washed up all the volunteers cups and plates.
But by far the most bizarre interruption of my day off was from McColleague. I was sat in my living room, sketching, when I heard her call from outside the door.

"Doris! Do you know where (something something) is?"

"What?" I put down my sketch book and pencil and opened the door. "Do I know where the what is?"

I stopped short. McColleague was stood there with our young volunteer. Both had tiny ducklings clutched in each hand. "Peep!" said the ducklings.

"Do you know where the mother duck is?" repeated McColleague.

"'s not in here with me, anyway." I was confused. Why were my colleagues outside my living room, holding tiny fuzzy ducklings at me?

"We found these all by themselves near the chapel, and there was no mother duck anywhere near. I was afraid they were going to get run over by the builder's van. We've walked right round the moat but not found the mother duck."

"Could be on mini-moat," I ventured, "or the slurry pit."

Eventually we did track down mother duck, with the rest of her brood, on mini-moat. The tiny, peeping ducklings were set down carefully by the water's edge, and mother duck immediately took off to the other side of the moat. She is a bad mother duck. Shirking her responsibilities like that. After we backed off and some time had passed she finally accepted them back into her brood. A happy ending! I returned to the house and attempted to resume my sketching.

Tomorrow I am going to go out.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Grumble

I was covering for my Visitor Reception Assistant, on the desk in the ticket office. The sun was shining brightly and everyone had a smile. Everyone, that is, except the woman now standing before me.

"Hello!" I said.

"You don't have any shady parking areas for people with dogs."

I looked over her shoulder at the car park. It's just a big field, really.

"No," I conceded, "but it's a new car park and we have planted lots of trees, so in a few years there'll be more shady areas."

She gave me a look and "Hmmm"ed at me.

"I can't make them grow any faster," I assured her. "But in the meantime why not bring the dog with you? We allow dogs on leads in the grounds."

Honestly, who brings dogs out with them for the day just to leave in the car anyway?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Sunday Whinge

This is what happens when I foolishly leave my breakfast unattended for a nanosecond.

I am particularly tired and drained today and had hoped to have a quiet day behind the scenes. I really didn't feel up to being front of house for five hours straight. I looked forward to leaving it in the hands of my volunteer who, naturally, didn't turn up. I wouldn't mind, but she didn't turn up when she was last meant to be on duty either. She was most apologetic, mind you. Sent me a card to say sorry, explained that she has lost her diary, and then came to my office in person to sign up for her next shift. "Let me write these dates down for you," I said, "seeing as though you haven't got a diary." Why I thought a couple of post-it notes were going to remain in her possession any longer than her diary managed to I have no idea. I must have been in a wildly optimistic mood. Maybe it was when I ate that entire Easter egg in one go.

I hardly dare phone her now, to see what happened this time. Assuming she's fine and just forgot, she will be so mortified I'll wish I never mentioned it. If she isn't fine, then I'll feel mortified. I'm not quite sure what the ideal outcome to this scenario could be...Suggestions?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Flurry of Activity

"Where's the tin?"

"What tin?"

"The cash tin for the desk?"

"It's there," I said, indicating the donations tin.

"But what if people want change?"

"We don't give them change, it's a donation. We haven't had a cash tin on the desk for the past three years, remember?"

My volunteer gave me a blank look. It was his first time back in this season. He'd obviously jettisoned all prior knowledge as surplus to requirements over the winter. He's not alone in this.


"Where are the laminated sheets about the guns, they don't seem to be in the drawer?"

"No, we're not having laminated sheets out on display any more, we've put them in the folder, remember?"


"Do you want the centre light on, or the lamp, in the Business Room?"

" seems really bright and sunny to me today, Mildred....I don't think we need a light on at all. Remember the damage light can do?"


"Mildred's just fallen down the stairs!"

"What? Our stairs?"

"Yes, she was halfway down, missed her tread, and fell down the rest of them."

"Is she ok?"

"Yes, but a bit shaken."

"I'd better do an accident report. What was she doing up the stairs anyway?"

"Think she was putting the lights on."


"Can you read this?"

McColleague was pointing to a tiny inscription on the handle of an old umbrella from the Business Room. I looked up from the accident report form for Mildred.


"A visitor wanted to know. I'll get the magnifying glass."


"No, I still can't see anything. It's too small. Who on earth wants to know stuff like this?"

"Tell him it's a manufacturers stamp."



"Umbrella Man says your drain's blocked."

"What drain?"

"The drain outside your bathroom window."

"What's he doing looking at that?"

McColleague shrugged.

"Ask Lovely Warden to poke it with a pointy stick, that usually does it. It's probably just leaves."


"Bloody hell."


"I've just bumped into Umbrella Man again. This time he says there's a lamb separated from its mother outside - couldn't we hear it bleating?"

Just then the radio squawked into life.

"Ticket Office to Doris - there is a lamb running up the drive."

"Yup, OK, we're on it!"


Outside the house a small black and white Jacobs lamb was indeed out on the road, racing toward the horizon.

"It's one of yours," I said to my Boss, who happened to be on site at the time.

The ensuing chase was the highlight of my day. Lovely Warden came at it from one end of the road, my Boss from the other. There was running and jumping, leaps, bounds, falls and shouting. McColleague and I watched the whole thing from our vantage point on the front lawn. We doubled over with laughter. The whole event was drawing quite a crowd. At long last the lamb was finally persuaded to run back into the field and was reunited with its mother. The Boss walked back to McColleague and I, holding up a bloodstained hand.

"Need the First Aid kit," he smiled. "I dived for the lamb, missed, and grabbed the barbed wire fence."

"Aw, I'll have to do another accident report now."

"The thing is," confided the Boss as he dabbed at his wound with an antiseptic wipe, "what I usually do when I'm trying to catch one of my lambs is kick its feet out from under it as it tries to run past. But I couldn't do that with everyone looking."

McColleague and I nodded understandingly. Kicking lambs never goes down well with the visitors over the Easter holidays.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

It's All Gone Quiet Over Here...

Oh, the luxury. All day off today. Even if the next Bank Holidays are as busy, at least they are in isolation, rather than the Good Friday to Easter Monday four day marathon.

In many ways we were victims of our own success. Taking the view that if you don't do well at Easter you never really get a chance to catch up, I embarked on an extensive marketing campaign. That, combined with the warm, sunny weather, led to unprecedented numbers making their way to the house.

I know the financial types at Regional Office will see the statistics and rub their hands with glee. And, yes, it is good to make some money. However, I feel the house was at its limits over the weekend, with numbers so high as to detract from the experience for everyone.

The house suffered a great deal of wear and tear. I noted with dismay a broken piece of the spinning wheel, simply discarded on the table. The crewel-work bedding on the oaken four-poster has chocolatey stains on it, and I picked up everything from discarded food wrappers to nappy bags and stickers from the floor. The ancient typewriter in the Business Room had its keys jammed down, pot pourri had been scattered liberally through the bedroom and anything small and moveable had been moved. It saddens and frustrates me, as I am loathe to litter the house with "Do Not Touch" signs. Many parents feel that the typical country house experience is an unfriendly one, with everything roped off and room stewards frowning upon boisterous behaviour from children. Yet, here, where nothing is roped off, we find that some parents seem quite happy to allow their offspring to leap upon the bed, bash away at the old typewriter or break bits off the spinning wheel. When we are not so crowded it is easier for us to engage our young visitors and explain why we mustn't treat fragile objects so harshly, but when we are crammed to the rafters it just isn't possible. You'd hope people would have a little more respect for their surroundings.

The crowds also meant managing the event was a tougher job than usual. Last year we ran tractor and trailer rides at Easter and the public responded with apathy. I had to wander around the grounds trying to round people up to fill the trailer, and the poor farmer just sat there, waiting, for hours. This year it was like a scene from Alton Towers. The queues were huge! I couldn't believe how many people had assembled at the boarding point. There was no way they would all fit on to the trailer. I began to think I should have introduced some sort of ticketing system, rather than the "first come, first served" approach which had always stood me in good stead previously. "Are you ok to squeeze in a few extra tours?" I whispered to the farmer. Thankfully, he was.

So, the people in the queue began to board the trailer for the first tour of the day and there came a point where I had to say "Sorry folks, that's it for this one, but it will return in just under an hour! In the meantime, please enjoy the sunshine, the giant games, the falconry and animals, and the farmer will be back as soon as he can!"

All well and good. About 50 minutes later the tractor could be seen a good quarter of a mile away, returning back to the house for the next tour. I went to meet it and manage the queue. Already there was a horde of people waiting for the next one. God, it was hard. Trying to stop people from standing directly in front of a reversing trailer and tractor, trying to stop them trying to surge onto the trailer before the current occupants had disembarked, trying to get them to stand back far enough so that people could get down the steps safely. Trying to get them to move aside so that they were no longer obscuring the disabled parking area. All very trying. At last the next load of people had swarmed onto the trailer and I was giving my apologies to those who had failed to make it on board this time. One lady was not happy.

"We didn't get onto the first tour, and now we've not go onto this one. We've already waited an hour! I don't want to tell you your job or anything, but maybe you should look at some sort of ticketing system."

This situation repeated itself on a hourly basis. Finally closing time came around and as I waved the last trailer tour of the day off site and walked back to the house another visitor intercepted me. "Can I just make a comment?" she asked. Escape was not an option. My feet ached too much to run far. "Yes, of course!" I beamed.

"We've just done the trailer tour and it was excellent, really good fun, the kids loved it."


"Yes, thing is, I don't know if you've done these before, but maybe you should look at some sort of ticketing system?"

Next time I am going to introduce some sort of ticketing system.

Oh, and the cows did shit all over the giant chess board and several of the pieces.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ducklings Do Not So Much Fly, as Plummet

Yesterday evening the duck eggs in the hollow oak tree finally hatched! Mother duck had left the nest and was circling the base of the tree, quacking incessantly, while her fluffy ducklings teetered on the edge of the hole and refused to jump. Round and round went mother duck, her quacks become increasingly plaintive.

I spotted increased movement in the hole in the tree and then one bold duckling went for it. He kind of plummeted head first to the ground and landed on his back, bounced a goodly way in the air, and then took off after his still-circling mum, apparently none the worse for wear. The other ducklings obviously saw his bad landing and thought "no way". They refused to budge.

As the evening drew on, my other half could stand it no longer. "I'm going to hoy them out of there," he announced.

"But, that's not part of nature's plan," I protested.

"Yeah, well, I don't see that falling on their heads is part of nature's plan. I'm going to get them out."

So, up he climbed. "Oh wow," he said, peering inside the hole.

"Take a picture," I cried. Precariously, hanging on with one hand and trying hard not to fall out of the tree and into the moat, he did:

One by one, he handed down a duckling to my outstretched hands, and I then put them on the grass, where they were happily reunited with their mother. We counted out thirteen ducklings in total, and each and every one of them crapped in my hands. Can't say I blame them.

Our intervention doesn't seem to have done them any harm. They drew crowds all afternoon at the Easter event. There may have been giant games, birds of prey, exotic reptiles, insects, mammals, tractor and trailer rides, quizzes and chocolate eggs yet the ducklings were proving to be strong competition.

Unprecedented numbers of people turned up today. Our trailer rides were so popular they were totally over-subscribed and we had to shoehorn in an extra couple of tours. There isn't an ice cream left in the shop. My feet hurt. But, this is what makes it all worthwhile - a lovely couple of comments cards left for me this evening:

"By far the best place I have visited - lovely surroundings and good walks. The children enjoyed the games and quiz - a perfect day"


"I think it was the best I've ever been to - Emily, age 7".

And best of all, I get to do it all again tomorrow! Pass the wine...

Friday, April 06, 2007

Chess, Calves and a Broody Duck

The public did indeed play with the chess set today. All our outdoor games were very popular. My main problem now is keeping the escapee calves away from it all. I don't want them to crap all over the board. They are very interested in the big games. And the dog keeps making off with the croquet balls.

This duck has also decided to go where she can cause maximum disruption. This weekend we proudly unveiled our new exhibition in the courtyard. A wonderful collection of new interpretation panels and interactive displays on 700 years of forestry and farming on the estate. One of our key exhibits was our "listening post", where you can press a button on the display and hear various people talking about various aspects of farming on the estate through the ages. This was in an alcove of its own. The last week has seen countless men in heavy boots clumping in and out, sawing bits of wood, wiring up the speakers, shifting out the junk. And, lo and behold, a broody duck decided this was the ideal spot to lay her eggs.

Her nest is a bizarre mix of an old latex glove, a used tea light, some plastic bags and feathers. Unperturbed by the activity around her she has sat stoically on her nest all week. I was concerned she'd get trodden on, being so well camouflaged, so McColleague brought in a fireguard to put around her (leaving space for her to get in and out, of course!)

I have roped off the alcove altogether, with a little sign saying "Do Not Disturb. Nesting Duck." She is proving far more of an attraction than the listening post, which, somewhat unsurprisingly, turned out not to work properly anyway.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Hours of Work for Sheer Seconds of Pleasure

Assembling a giant chessboard is neither quick nor easy. It is frustrating, hurts your fingers and takes well over an hour, even with four of you working on it. It takes longer to put together than to play an actual game of chess.

The manufacturers of the Giant Chess Game are sadistic bastards.

The public better bloody well play with it now.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bunny Girl

I have worded my press releases very carefully this year, in the run up to Easter.

If I am not careful, I can end up having to portray the gist of my press release for the benefit of the local press photographer. This leads to scenarios like these.

My press release this year emphasises all the other attractions we have to offer visitors this forthcoming weekend. The many activities and special features that cannot be illustrated by me holding an Easter Egg aloft or grinning like a maniac at a small fluffy chick. Anything to avoid having to wear a bunny costume about four sizes too small for me ever again.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Great Expectations

I have long needed extra help in the house. McColleague is a one woman wonder, a dynamo, and does far more than the actual six hours a week she's actually paid for. Still, no matter how far we stretch those six hours, they in no way cover all that needs doing. This means that when McColleague isn't here, I fill in the gaps. When I fill in the gaps, my important managerial tasks involving files, reports, budgets and other bits of paperwork, do not happen. When vital bits of paper don't arrive on Important Person's desks on the appointed day, I receive terse little emails, stressing how very important it is that the visitor statistics are received on time. I then have to send terse little replies about how very important it is to have the house open on time for people to visit in the first place. Before you know it we're all being terse, and where is the love?

Of course money is always the problem. No finances for extra hours for McColleague, let alone for an additional member of staff. So, I put out a plea for conservation volunteers to help in the house.

To my utter astonishment, someone was interested! A delightful young woman applied to become a full time volunteer conservation assistant. The question was, would she be put off by the actuality of the job itself? The perception is that there will be lots of wearing white cotton gloves, cleaning ceramics with a cotton bud or dusting with a pony hair brush. The truth is that interesting, meticulous tasks like those take up a tiny proportion of the working year, with the vast majority of the time taken up with boring old hoovering and dusting. There just isn't time to do anything else before the house opens to the public each day. The basics are dull, but necessary. Bat poo needs to be hoovered up, dead flowers need to be replaced with fresh ones, litter bins need emptying and loo rolls replacing.

All of this was explained in advance, in great detail to our New Girl, and, to her credit, she still turned up to give it a go. Along with the conservation side of things, she was also interested in learning about how a heritage site is managed, so at least she's getting an honest experience.

I hope she finds it has been worthwhile. (There is a tendency to worry you're not giving your volunteer interesting enough tasks, so you end up emptying the bins and doing the hoovering while they get to do something more glamorous or fun. Several of my counterparts at other properties have fell into the same trap. I am trying hard not to let it happen this time. The job is what it is, after all.) She keeps coming back, and she's still smiling, so it bodes well.

A key educational moment came fairly early on in her volunteerhood. Myself, McColleague and the New Girl were outside installing solar powered lights along the path, ready for an evening event. The lights were mounted on the end of a black plastic stick, with a pointy end, so you can just push them into the ground wherever you need them. Well, in theory, anyway. The ground was proving too hard.

"McColleague, " I yelled down the path. "Fetch the hammer and a bit of wood!"

I turned to smile at the New Girl. "There," I said. "When you hear me call for the hammer and a bit of wood, you know that's proper conservation."

This week I have told her to bring her wellies, as I have another conservation project in store. If she sticks with it, I may break out the cotton buds and white gloves, as a treat.